Tag Archives: Montaigne

Marginalia, no.226

Having been unable to do what they would, they have pretended to will what they could.

~ Montaigne, Essays II, 18

You may have noticed that, just before the deathblow, a gazelle will seem to sigh and resign itself to circumstances under the cheetah’s paw – almost as if it had finally found what it secretly wanted all along. Slow the footage for a moment and you’ll get a perfect icon of the peaceable kingdom. It may be one of those odd intersections of wisdom and foolishness in life, a sort of grotesque mercy: to finally choose what you can no longer escape.


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Marginalia, no.188

There is at least as great perfection in developing an empty theme as in sustaining a weighty one.

~ Montaigne, ‘Of Presumption’ (Essays II,17)

Cold comfort. The only book I ever really wanted to write was Moby Dick. Unfortunately, it’s been done. In the ‘Fossil Whale’ chapter, Melville staggers under the weight of his subject matter: “Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms!” No one, he says, could write a truly great book on the insubstantial flea. Becalmed in the doldrums of endless half-hearted revision, my own novel begins to taste like chalky hardtack, but I’m no nearer the whale. Some insect has just bitten my arm.

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Marginalia, no.155

My thoughts fall asleep if I make them sit down.  My mind will not budge unless my legs move it.

~ Montaigne, Essays

I solve problems by walking through the empty business park behind my office, where fountains and gardens are well tended but not a single soul labors behind the acres of tinted glass.  Solutions emerge from idle spaces like hieroglyphs from blank stone.  I remember walking through Dublin one day in late ‘92, across the Liffey where (at the time) a crumbling brick desert of abandoned warehouses and tenements stretched block after block.  It gave an eerie, giddy feeling.  I was puzzling over something or other.  Here and there amidst the rubble was a bookshop, a café, an old man leading a horse by a rope, a crowd (from where?) buying cabbages and Panasonic radios from the back of a truck.  Aha!

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Marginalia, no.153

Those plangent musical awakenings in his childhood had a lot to answer for.

~ Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne…

Bakewell summarizes the critique of Jules Michelet.  Montaigne’s father ordered that his son should only be awakened in the morning by the sound of soft music.  How much different, I wonder, would the Essays have been if Montaigne were roused each day by an alarm clock or, as I often was, by a father uncommonly skilled in mimicking the sound of a kazoo playing reveille.

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The Experience of Being Human

I honor those bloggers – like the indefatigable Patrick Kurp – cast in the heroic mold, who manage to publish something fresh and vigorous every day.  I am not one of them.  These days the demon Work devours my energies and what little I can hide away needs careful preserving for the nourishment of my other, better-loved demon, Novel.  I still manage to read, but reading refreshes rather than consumes.  Reading is to writing what indulgent recuperation at an alpine spa is to the wasting fevers, writhings and bilateral expulsions of a near-mortal illness.

My son and I are presently forging through Mervyn Peake’s adventurous Letters from a Lost Uncle.  And on the train or after midnight, when the machinery of my mind has burnt up all lubrication and I couldn’t write (or re-write) another goddamn sentence if the lives of a dozen day-old puppies depended on it, I pick up Sarah Bakewell’s luxuriously subtitled How to Live: A Biography of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  Of course, no sooner had I ordered the book from the UK and paid my international shipping fees than its stateside release was announced for later this month.

Poor souls who have spent any time whatever in my virtual company will know that I am a great admirer of Montaigne.  I am not as much an admirer of Ms Bakewell, but my complaints with her method or style (or subtitle) are mostly trivial and her book has been a pleasure.  Early in an opening chapter – and periodically throughout her 350 pages – Bakewell describes the queer sensation so many readers experience on first acquaintance with Montaigne: the sense that he is writing about them as much as himself.  In his frank self-portraiture and embrace of amor fati, the happy acceptance of all the foibles and inadequacies that make him as an individual different than anyone else, Montaigne somehow helps us to better see what we all have in common, ‘the experience of being human.’

I don’t know that he was any great lover of Montaigne, but I’m reminded of a passage from Thoreau’s journals (February 12, 1851) describing the discovery – or rediscovery – of such communion:

I think that we are not commonly aware that man is our contemporary, – that in this strange, outlandish world, so barren, so prosaic, fit not to live in but merely to pass through, that even here so divine a creature as man does actually live.  Man, the crowning fact, the god we know.  While the earth supports so rare an inhabitant, there is somewhat to cheer us.  I think that the standing miracle to man is man.

Let’s not wax too poetical about this.  Montaigne accomplishes something remarkable in the Essays by his honesty, his curiosity and his habitual suspension of judgment, but thankfully he’s no magician, no demigod.  The point is his – our own – humanity.  The waking from intellectual isolation and the reminder, by a punch in the gut as often as a caress, that we all share and partake in a single, immutably mutable human nature – that is, to my mind, the point.

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Marginalia, no.150

When I grow up, I shall be two men.

~ Julian Hawthorne, as a child

Wee Julian was trying to impress his father with how burly and mannish he would become.  But this is exactly what happens when we grow up: we split in two.  Montaigne, improving on St Paul, put it this way: ‘We are, I know not how, double within ourselves, with the result that we do not believe what we believe, and we cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.’

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Marginalia, no.142

I agreed with what was said, but I did not believe a word of it.

~ V.S. Pritchett, A Cab at the Door

A possibly helpful distinction.  Assent is sufficient if the intent is to convince (oneself or others) of solidarity; it is social lubrication.  Belief, on the other hand, is something more.  I wonder if we can ever decide for ourselves what we will believe.  Perhaps we only discover and rediscover it.  It may be, as Montaigne says, that we vary as much in ourselves as we do from others, but I’m struck sometimes by my own inevitability.

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